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The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine has licensed Penn's mRNA technology. Credit: Chase Sutton

Two Penn researchers were awarded the 2021 Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award for their work on messenger RNA technology central to the development of the SARS-CoV-2 vaccines. 

The prize awarded $250,000 to Katalin Karikó, a senior vice president at BioNTech and adjunct professor of neurosurgery at Penn, and Drew Weissman, the Roberts Family Professor of Vaccine Research in Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine, Penn Today reported. The pair won the award for a study they published in 2005 about the potential of mRNA as a therapeutic in initiating an immune response. Their mRNA platform was crucial in the rapid development and distribution of the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines, both of which have licensed Penn’s technology.

In their 2005 study, Weissman and Karikó showed that cells destroyed mRNA that they introduced. After modifying the mRNA, however, the cells made the protein encoded by the mRNA, The New York Times reported. In effect, the cells could be prompted to construct any protein they desired.

The award, considered among the most prestigious prizes in biomedical research, is named after Mary and Alfred Lasker. Mary Lasker was an advocate for medical research. Alfred Lasker developed a legacy of philanthropy and advocacy for medical research. The awards recognize the contributions of those who make significant advances in the understanding, diagnosis, prevention, treatment, or cure of human disease. 

Other honorees in the 75-year history of the award include Anthony Fauci, for developing government programs aimed at treating HIV, and Jonas E. Salk, for his invention of the polio vaccine.

The pair is now working on developing an RNA-based gene therapy for sickle cell anemia by targeting bone marrow stem cells.

Weissman and Karikó have received several other national and international awards, including the Breakthrough Prize and the Princess of Asturias Award, Penn Today reported.